Parish nurse plays a healthy role

When a St. Joseph, Cockeysville, parishioner was taken to the emergency room after a fainting episode during Mass, his wife was inadvertently left stranded in church in her wheelchair. Ann Marie Labin, pastoral associate for health, stayed with the woman the remainder of the day until her husband returned home.

The 54-year-old registered nurse thought nothing of her good deed. It was simply all in a day’s work in the health ministry as a parish nurse, also called a faith community nurse.

The title can be misleading, however, since the role of a parish nurse reaches far beyond blood pressure screenings or checking for a fever.

The parish nurse ministry began in the Midwest several decades ago, said Ms. Labin, and although prevalent in every denomination, it’s still finding ground in the east.

“It’s not a well-known ministry here,” she said. “It’s been more difficult for parishes to acclimate themselves to having a parish nurse, but we’re getting there.”

Including St. Joseph, about eight parishes in the archdiocese have a part- or full-time nurse on staff.

The job description of a parish nurse varies – duties depend on a parish’s size and its health-related needs. A handful of other parishes have volunteers to handle everything from rides to the hospital to administering bedside Eucharist.

In this ministry, health and spirituality overlap.

“Parish nursing is about promoting health of the whole person … body, mind and spirit,” said Deborah Czawlytko, a full-time, paid registered nurse at St. Ignatius, Hickory. “It’s about honoring the connectedness … and helping people to be as healthy as possible in all three of those realms.”

For example, she might take a parishioner’s blood pressure, and she will make referrals for treatment if she gets a high reading. Yet Mrs. Czawlytko also will spend time listening to the person, she said, to find out what is happening in his or her personal and spiritual life which may have caused the high blood pressure.

“The parish nurse cares for you as a whole person, who is a beloved of God, not just for your blood pressure,” she said.

Tracey Eberhardt, director of health ministry at St. Francis of Assisi in Fulton, oversees more than 10 ministries: prison ministry, pastoral visits, prayer team, blood pressure screenings, potty training (posting health topics in bathroom stalls), medical equipment closet, seniors social group, postal ministry (sending handmade greeting cards to the sick), meals that heal, Lifeline (cancer support group), and Caring for Christ (errands, shopping, companionship). She has more than 100 volunteers.

“Without them this wouldn’t happen,” she said.

Clearly, she enjoys the challenge. “This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

Just as busy yet clocking in on a part-time schedule is Nancy Waligorski, who is the registered nurse at St. Joan of Arc in Aberdeen and a parishioner of St. Mark in Fallston. Her parish nurse duties vary as well: counseling, medical referrals, eucharistic ministry, homebound care, visiting Catholic patients at Harford Memorial Hospital and seniors in nursing homes and assisted living.

The nurse tends to folks’ spiritual side, too.

“Some of their conditions are chronic, and so you help them in the spiritual aspect to cope with those situations,” said Mrs. Waligorski. “I’m surprised more churches don’t have them (parish nurses). Our Protestant brothers and sisters utilize it more than we do. I would like to see it (this ministry) grow in our parishes.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.